Monday, August 23, 2010

The Strongbox

My mom died on July 4th, 1999. She would have gotten a kick out of that coincidence. A quietly religious woman, she would have chuckled and affirmed that she did indeed get her independence on July 4th, 1999.

Some weeks after my mom’s memorial service, I went to the family home to clear out her bedroom, a difficult, dreaded task. Lisa, “my nieca,” was with me, which made the ordeal a bit lighter. No matter, I was on automatic pilot while clearing out her closet and drawers, the tabletops and walls. “Don’t think! Don’t feel! Just get it done!” was the mental mantra I used to get me through.

As I drove home that day, I sadly reflected upon how little of my mom was left behind. There were no mementos, nothing she had made with her own hands, just a few knick-knacks that had always been a part of her room. It left me feeling hollow and incredibly sad for my mom’s difficult life.

The silver lining of that emptiness was that it led me to a decision I had been grappling with for a long time--whether I should leave behind the volumes and volumes of journals I have filled throughout the years, since 1980 consistently. The journals are filled with my innards—hopes, dreams, love, lust—the La-La Land of my mind. The journals are where I puked out onto pages and pages the worry, fear, despair and desperation I felt as a single, out-of-control mother with three out-of-control kids. The journals are filled with the drunken ramblings of my alcoholism, the mystical wonder of my recovery, and my continuing sober journey. Yes. I’m leaving it all behind, warts and all, because it’s who I am and I want my children to have something of me when I’m gone.

Just recently, I found myself once again in the family home, this time helping that same niece clear out the entire place following her father’s/my brother’s death. I had sworn to myself that I’d never return after my brother died, but here I was again, rooting through drawers and cabinets, looking for anything that might be of value to the family.

I was going through things half-heartedly. My niece had already given me the family photographs, all I really cared about, and I found myself once again repeating the same mantra, “Don’t think! Don’t feel! Just get it done!” One cabinet contained my father’s boxed sets of opera recordings and I envisioned him sitting in his leather chair, eyes closed, listening with rapture to the music he loved best.

On the lower shelf of the same cabinet, I found a black strongbox. I’d never seen it before and I pulled it out, curious to see what it contained. Lo and behold, it was filled with mementos my mom had kept! I felt joy and relief digging through its contents, but I didn’t have time to go through it all then.

Once I was home and found the courage to release the ghosts contained in the strongbox, I opened it. I found my mother’s elementary school graduation certificate. This was special to her because she never went to high school—she had become pregnant and was robbed of her high school days, her youth, really. I also found my father’s birth certificate, a first-generation San Franciscan--his father had come from the Abruzzo Region of Italy, and his mother from Norway. My grandparents’ death certificates were in the strongbox, as well as my parents’ marriage certificate. It warmed me to find my baptism booklet and immunization records mixed among those of my siblings. There were a couple of news articles and a winning ribbon my younger brother was awarded for the 50 foot dash in Cub Scouts in 1957!

My plan is to organize the contents of the strongbox and give away those mementos which will have meaning to the recipients. In the meantime, I’m so happy that my mother cared enough about these events in her life, in our lives, to keep the memories. This brings to mind an evening when I was a child and my older brother was serving his mandatory two years in the U.S. Army sometime in the 1950s. Our family put their musical talents together and created a tape to send to him in El Paso, Texas. They changed the lyrics to Bob Hope’s song, “Thanks for the Memories,” and created a family masterpiece. I don’t know what happened to that tape, but I can say this: Thanks for the memories, Mom.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Second Set of Parents

There are four Sirianni offspring born to Joe and Agnes: Rich, Bobbie, me and Johnny. John and I are the only one's left; our dad died in 1991, our mom in 1999, our sister in 2001, our brother just last year.

I remember feeling as if one of the training wheels came off my bike when my dad died. Life felt wobbley. By the time my mom went, I knew I was riding on my own. I didn't feel scared. In a way, it was empowering; I felt grown up.

Losing siblings is another story. The saving grace was that Rich was 12 years older than me, and Bobbie 10. They were almost like a second set of parents. Almost, but they weren't around much.

When I was two years old, Rich was sent to live with my aunt and uncle on their chicken ranch in Santa Rosa. According to family lore, he was 14 and heading down the road to juvenile delinquency. I guess my father, who had quit going to school entirely around the 8th grade, didn't want the acorn to fall far from the tree. My parents were convinced that living with relatives who were upstanding, church-going farmers, with three sons around Rich's age, would turn him around. It seemed to have worked.

Rich returned home to graduate with his class at Jefferson High School. I must have been in kindergarten or first grade. A young family had moved next door to us, a successful mortgage broker, his wife, and young children. The mortgage broker took a liking to Rich and decided to mentor him. He suggested that Rich go into the Army and get the two years of mandatory service behind him. Rich did that and was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas. He luckily had missed the Korean War entirely.

When Rich got out of the service, he returned home. By then, he was a young "stud muffin," dating lots of pretty women, and he wasn't around home much. He had begun his career in the mortgage loan business and was doing well. He was my hero, my father of choice. (We'll broach that topic another time.)

When Bobbie was 19 years old, she had her first manic-depressive episode, a condition that lasted until she died at age 64. I was 9 years old when Bobbie got sick that first time. I didn't understand why my big sis was acting so strangely, why she didn't sleep, why her personality changed so drastically, why my parents were so upset. I thought all she needed was a good spanking because she was misbehaving so badly! Bobbie was hospitalized for two years then, and treatment involved electro-shock treatment. I visited her there with the family and I simply didn't understand.

Not long after Bobbie was released from the hospital, Rich married his first wife. It was 1959 and I was 12 years old. They had a lovely, large wedding at Mission Carmel; I remember I cried and cried. Soon after that, and against doctor's advice, Bobbie married the brother of one of her co-patients. They moved to Eureka where his family lived; she was gone again, too.

In February, 1962, Bobbie's daughter was born. Bobbie's doctors had also strongly advised that she not get pregnant or do anything life-changing to upset her precarious recovery. Soon after Jill was born, Bobbie had another manic episode and was hospitalized again. The disastrous marriage soon ended and Bobbie and Jill eventually moved into the family home.

I guess, in retrospect, my older siblings weren't even "almost" a second set of parents. And, although I wish they'd been around more, it wouldn't have been fair to them. Johnny and I weren't their children, after all.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Debtor's Deadly Denial

This month's Macy's account statement arrived in yesterday's mail. Conforming to the law recently passed and enacted this month, the invoice contains the requisite payment information, i.e., "if you make the minimum payment, you will pay off the balance in X amount of time."

Up until a few years ago, I lived the life of a fiscally irresponsible fool. A Scarlett O'Hara wannabe, I embraced the mantra, "Fiddle-dee-dee. I'll think about it tomorrow!" with regard the handling of my finances. If I wanted something material, damnit--I deserved it! and I purchased it on credit. I perceived a bank card's credit limit as cash in my greedy little pocket.

This eventually had me drowning in an abyss of despair and led me to the denial-smashing realization that I would never be able to pay off the sum of my debt in my lifetime. With a great amount of shame, I filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 2003, concurrent with being laid off from a well-paying hi-tech job. ("Concurrent" meaning that I had begun the filing process before losing my job.)

What happens after one is granted a bankruptcy is criminal. The credit card companies begin an onslaught of offers for a new line of credit. The credit limit being offered is low and the interest rate astronomical. For someone as sick with Scarlett fever as I was, I jumped at the chance to continue the greedy game of instant gratification. I did not in any way change my lifestyle after I lost my job, by the way. I didn't move from the too-large, too-costly condo I was renting. I didn't stop going to lunch and dinner with friends. Instead, for almost three years after that layoff, I lived on sold stock, cashed out 401K funds, unemployment payments, and credit.

When all of that ran out, I hit a brick wall so hard it almost led me to picking up a drink after 18 years of sobriety. There was no one to blame but myself. Miraculously, I didn't drink, and a chain of events occurred that led me to Consumer Credit Counseling Services (now Surepath), and to a book entitled, "Money Drunk, Money Sober." Right around the same time, I was rehired by the hi-tech firm that had laid me off all those years before. (The Universe always cooperates when we take that first step toward taking responsibility for our problems.)

I turned over the six--count 'em: SIX!--bank cards to CCCS (debt totalling $18K after bankruptcy). They negoiated with the credit card companies to get the interest rate down (and some aren't very liberal about lowering the percentages). I began paying CCCS $509 per month via electronic fund transfer from my checking account. I moved into an apartment so small that it necessitated storing my dining room furniture and other items not needed day-to-day, and I began working the program outlined in the book, "Money Drunk..." My journey on the road to fiscal accountability was on.

This month, I made my last $509 payment to Surepath, having paid a total of $24K over their four-year program (yes, there are fees, but who cares? I was able to clear the debt in four years!). In those same four years, I've been tracking every cent I spend, daily, then, at the end of four weeks, I map out those expenditures by category. I now know exactly where I'm spending money, and where I need to pull back (one month, I discovered that I had spent $450 eating in restaurants!).

My Scarlett fever isn't cured completely. I kept two department store credit cards off the bankruptcy and the debt-consolidation lists. I decided that I wouldn't be too prudent about those purchases, and I'd pay a standing $150 a month toward the ongoing balances, budgeting the $300 paid monthly as a "clothing" expense.

Back to this month's Macy's statement: My balance is $1170. If I make the minimum payment of $39, the balance would be paid off in 17 years! If I pay $46 a month, the balance would be paid off in 3 years. I am grateful beyond words that those six bank cards have been paid in full, and the requests to close the accounts were mailed just this past Monday! Now that the $506 monthly payment to CCCS/Surepath are done, I'll have those two department store balances cleared in no time.

My concern is for other debtors as sick as me (past and present). I know that many suicides are motivated by financial woes. I keep envisioning someone with a family to support, who is unemployed and up to their ears in debt, opening their credit card statements this month and feeling utter despair and hopelessness. What of them?

Included below the payment information box, the credit card company this note: If you are experiencing financial difficulty and would like information about credit counseling or debt management services, you may call 1-877-337-8187. Curious, I dialed the number. There was a recording listing names of debt counseling and debt management agencies that offer help. How many will call that number? How many will jump off the Golden Gate Bridge?

What I know for sure is this: The disclosure of payment information is going to yank debtors out of deadly denial, and the game that's been played by these legitimate loan-sharks called credit card companies is going to change. Drastically. Mark my words.

Friday, February 5, 2010

I Never Listen to Nike

What's going on with me that I make every excuse in the world not to exercise? Why is that?

The jury's in about the benefit of exercising. I've found that going to Curves works for me. The clientele is like me--female, older and, for the most part, out of shape. It's a great comfort to me that the place isn't filled with young hard bodies, firm, lithe and nubile.

When I do Curves' half-hour circuit and post-workout stretches, I do it full-bore and actually work up a sweat. I can pop in whenever it's convenient (provided the urge to exercise coincides with their hours of operation). It's a wham, bam, thank you, Ma'am/no muss, no fuss kinda exercise program.

I always feel better afterwards! The endorphines kick in and, psychologically, I feel I've done something good for myself. When I do Curves two or three times a week for a couple of months, the shape of my body tightens and improves noticeably. There's no longer a need to lie down on the bed to zip the jeans, or wear the long, cover-the-bulges tops. I can even grab items of clothing from the thinner side of the closet!

The latest derailment of my body began right about the time the wheels started coming off the relationship. That was late summer. It's clear to me that emotions trigger what I eat, and how I treat my body. I see the pattern. I wasn't getting naked for anyone anymore, so why bother?

So, time heals, but before I knew it, the holidays were here and I became too busy. After the holidays, I was too tired, it was too cold, too dark, too wet, it was too much to ask of someone who has the luxury of telecommuting to venture out to exercise, a person who isn't required to leave her home to work, who never has to wear anything with a waistband.

What triggered this self-flaggelation, you ask? Why, the visit to the new doctor, of course! I had to get on the scale and the thing-a-majiggy was slid to the maximum of my allowable range. Urgh. Once in the examining room, the doctor began asking all the questions on the checklist (any history of liver problems, kidney problems, etc.) My responses were automatic, until the one came about how frequently I exercise. I'm sure my face resembled Wiley Coyote's after he's run off the cliff and looks downward. Err...umm...sputter-sputter... I can't recall what I mumbled as an excuse, or lack of one. He told me to walk. Just walk. I live in a walking neighborhood, so just walk.

The doctor appointment was on Monday. It's now Friday. Have I walked? Have I seen the inside of the local Curves. NAH. The thing is, no matter what my good intentions, the minute I begin to think about not going to exercise for whatever reason, it's over. I'm not going to do it.

What I'm hoping is that my writing about it will be another catharsis, spurring me into action. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Caffeine Dependent Curmudgeon-ess

This week, I went to a new doctor here in my almost-new town. After giving me a surprisingly enjoyable introductory exam, he sent me away with a lab order for perfunctory blood work and urinalysis. Dr. L said the lab was located just two driveways from his office and no appointment was necessary; however, pre-test fasting was required.

Urgh! This fasting mandate was going to require some planning.

I placed a call to the lab immediately upon returning home to determine what time they were open for business. I was delighted to learn of the 7:30am start. Still, I would be required to get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, get dressed, get into my car, drive across town, and interact with people BEFORE HAVING COFFEE! It was, therefore, imperative that I be conscious for the briefest amount of time before the bodily fluids were to be taken.

Last night, after much internal deliberation, I set the alarm for 6:45am, even then fearing that I'd given myself too much time to get to the lab. (6:45am is considered "sleeping in." My alarm is usually set for 6:12am on workdays, 6/12 being my birthdate--self-centered to the core, but, hey!, not everyone can set their alarms using their birthdate!)

Wouldn't you know it, I woke before the alarm this morning, at 5:05am! I couldn't let my mind click on, but it did. I couldn't remain conscious without coffee until 6:45am! I decided that if I read as if I were going to bed the night before, it might induce sleep. I clicked on the lamp, snatched up the novel, and began reading. That did it, thank God, and next thing I knew, the radio was blaring.

Urgh! I felt as if I were moving through thick, sticky molasses on my way to the kitchen. I prepared the coffeemaker, all but flipping the switch to begin brewing. I somehow managed to do everything required to get out the door, and I have absolutely NO recollection of my drive across town, a disconcerting realization.

Being new to the lab, I was required to fill out paperwork and sign acknowledgement forms. I resented every minute of the time it kept me away from my first sip of coffee. As soon as I turned in the completed forms, the burglar alarm began screeching, loudly! All of the lab technicians came out to the front, alarmed about the alarm, trying to determine if it was theirs to shut off. I muttered under my breath, "Just forget about it, pleeeeease call me in and draw my damn blood!" The alarm went silent as mysteriously as it had begun and I was called in. Once in the lab, the whole process took no more than five minutes! Before I knew it, I was on my way home to the awaiting coffeemaker!

I've been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 21 years. I was going to self-righteously proclaim that I've had no alcohol or mood-altering chemicals in my body for all those years! But after this morning, I realize such a statement would not be true. I have a replacement drug: Caffeine. Damn it! I am a caffeine-dependent curmudgeon-ess!

Am I going to quit drinking coffee? No bleeping* way!
(*I felt guilty after giving my 89-year old uncle the URL to my blog...)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Ho! Ho! Ho! Go Away, Tree, GO!

(My grandson, Ethan, and his mom, Felicia, beside the tree)

I finally took the Christmas Tree down yesterday. Shame, shame on me! Martha Stewart would NOT approve! Yes, it's an artificial tree and there was no risk of fire (I don't think), but it was time. I didn't want to have to replace the Christmas ornaments with red hearts or ornamental replicas of dead U.S. presidents.

What I wish is that I had a trap door beneath the tree so that when the season ends, I could unplug the lights, push a button, and watch it automatically go to its storage spot in the garage, a plastic bag enveloping it as it descends. Then, when the next year rolls around, press a button and up it comes, ready for the season!

I've been decorating Christmas trees since Moby Dick was a minnow, as my Australian friend, Joanne, would say. We always had live trees--small, large, flocked, fir, pine, spruce. A couple of years during the 1970's, we even put a flood light with changing colors on the damn thing. (That's what the '70's were like, anything for a light show! Since I couldn't get to the Haight-Ashbury, I brought it to suburbia!)

After the second divorce in 1981, it was a dreadful effort to get the annual Christmas tree, and I did it solely for the children. I hated the holidays after the divorces. There was never enough money at that time of year for gifts, let alone a disposable tree, and getting it into and out of the various apartments was a nightmare.

One year, I left it up well into February and it WAS a fire hazard. I'd have left it until April if my brother John hadn't come over and taken it away in disgust, shaking his head as he walked down the stairs. We all watched as he tossed it over the cliff one windy day (we were living in a rented house overlooking the Pacific at that time), laughing hysterically as it kept blowing back up onto the ground.

Several years ago, when I saw an ad for artificial trees and thought they looked pretty good, I decided getting one would be the answer to all my holiday problems! I still had Monica, my youngest, living at home at the time, but she was okay with the idea.

All these years later, I still feel it was a good decision. The only problem with an artificial tree, though is this: The photos of the tree each Christmas always look the same, unless someone's in the shot. I'm thinking that, instead of putting the angel on top of the tree next year, I'll devise something to indicate the current year!